Imposing defender van de Leest has proven to be a valuable acquisition
It’s been three months since Jackson van de Leest jumped aboard the Red Deer Rebels train and the big defenceman has enjoyed every minute of the ride.
“I’ve enjoyed my time here, the guys are great and we’ve been playing some good hockey,” the veteran WHL rearguard said Thursday.
The Kelowna native played four and a half seasons with the Calgary Hitmen before being acquired at the trade deadline in January and naturally needed a few games to adjust to his new team.
“It was a little bit different. It was my first time being traded so it was kind of a new experience for me, but I think I’ve been able to fit in really well with the identity here,” he said.
“It didn’t take me so long to learn the systems here, but to build some chemistry it took awhile. But we’ve been playing some good hockey and I’m happy to be a part of that.”
Rebels head coach Steve Konowalchuk certainly appreciates what the six-foot-seven, 238-pound fifth-year WHL player brings to the team.
“He’s been a very nice addition,” said Konowalchuk. “He’s a big body, defends well, keeps the play to the outside.
“He’s physical, strong . . . moves guys from out front of the net and rubs guys out along the boards. He’s also a good puck mover and I think he’s steadily getting more consistent with that, understanding how we like to move the puck up.
“In general his game has gotten better for us considering he came over from a team he’d spent his whole career with. His game has grown as a player for us with what we expect. He can play 25 minutes or more if need be and other teams don’t want to play against that big body.”
As the Hitmen captain before being dealt, van de Leest clearly has leadership qualities.
“He’s a leader and his experience in this league is very important,” said Konowalchuk. “He’s also a good person, a positive person. He brings a lot to our locker room as well as what he brings on the ice, for sure.”
The Rebels are a tightly knit team on and off the ice, a trait that can be partly attributed to the team living in the Centrium during the pandemic-shortened 2020-21 season.
At the same time the Hitmen were housed in a Calgary hotel close to the Seven Chiefs Sportsplex, where they played their home games.
“Last year with the Hitmen in the hotel we definitely had some experiences that you don’t normally share with the guys,” said van de Leest. “But I think even without that factor here this year we’re a super close knit team. Even with the additions of some new guys it’s been pretty seamless in my time here.
“The guys have been awesome, have treated me really well and I’ve made some friendships for life.”
The Rebels will finish no worse than third in the Eastern Conference this year and will open the playoffs at home on April 22 and 23.
It will be the third time in the playoffs for van de Leest, who — like every other playoff-bound WHL player — was robbed of the post season experience during the ’20-21 write-off season and also the previous campaign, which was halted in early March due to COVID-19.
“So I think everyone is even more eager than usual because it’s been such a long time,” he said. “I bring some (playoff) experience whereas some guys haven’t had that chance because of COVID.
“That’s something that I’m hoping to help some guys get through, but I think we’re all super pumped to be getting back into it.”
Van de Leest, a first-round selection of the Hitmen in the 2016 bantam draft who last fall attended the Philadelphia Flyers camp, has naturally noticed how the game intensity has increased as the playoffs draw nearer.
“You want to play every year the same and be just as excited for game number 54 as game number 10, but coming down the stretch it definitely does show that the playoffs are approaching,” he said. “The desire starts to really amp up coming into the playoffs.
“We’re playing some good teams in this last little stretch of the regular season which I think will help us get to be where we need to be going into the playoffs, which is the team to beat.”
The Rebels are coming off back-to-back wins over the Central Division leading Edmonton Oil Kings last weekend, two victories which have boosted the team’s confidence even more.
“We were proud of our performance in those games,” said van de Leest. “There’s stuff we’re going to clean up, but I think we played them well and we’re excited to carry that style of play into the playoffs.”
Red Deer will host the Lethbridge Hurricanes Friday at the Peavey Mart Centrium before visiting the Oil Kings early Saturday afternoon.
The Rebels’ regular season schedule will conclude next week when they visit the Hitmen Wednesday and host the Oil Kings Saturday.
On Friday, the team will wear throwback jerseys from the 1992-93 to ’96-97 seasons as part of Alumni Night presented by ATB.